Sex Drive [on CRASH]

From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 1997). — J.R.

CRASH

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by David Cronenberg

With James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill, Yolanda Julian, and Cheryl Swarts.

“Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way.

“Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.”

These are the last two paragraphs of J.G. Ballard’s introduction to his 1973 novel Crash. They point to a seeming paradox that lies at the heart of David Cronenberg’s masterful film adaptation as well as the original — the idea that pornography, by virtue of being political, can play a cautionary role rather than, or in addition to, a prescriptive one.… Read more »

Buyer Beware

From the Chicago Reader (January 24, 2003). — J.R.

SUPER-SUCKER-2

 

Super Sucker

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Jeff Daniels

With Daniels, Matt Letscher, Harve Presnell, Dawn Wells, John Seibert, Guy Sanville, Kate Peckham, Sandra Birch, Michelle Mountain, and Will Young.

super-sucker

Super Sucker, the second indie comedy feature written and directed by actor Jeff Daniels, is a terrible movie. But that doesn’t prevent it from being interesting and even admirable as a grassroots phenomenon. I haven’t seen its predecessor, Escanaba in da Moonlight (2001) — based on Daniels’s play, which he produced at his own 160-seat theater in Chelsea, Michigan, the Purple Rose (named after the Woody Allen movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, which Daniels has cited as a turning point in his career). The movie version of Escanaba passed through Chicago at some point and received a listing but not a review in this paper. In fact, Escanaba received few reviews anywhere (although the making of the film was the subject of an article in Harper’s in late 2000). The longest notice appeared in the Detroit News, whose Tom Long wrote that the film “is decidedly a Michigan experience, and there are questions as to how it will fly in lands that know nothing of the Mackinac Bridge, pasties, and the Department of Natural Resources.” But the film’s regional appeal was confirmed by its box office figures for Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota: in those three states alone, the film recouped its $1.8 million production budget and netted a half million dollars to boot.… Read more »

André Delvaux’s Buried Treasures

This was written in late 2012 and early 2013 for Film Comment, but this magazine’s editor loves to improvise the contents of every issue at the last moment, and this article had already been edited, scheduled, and then pulled from two separate issues. For me, it had currency and some immediacy because of the release of a Delvaux box set in Belgium; from the editor’s more land-locked Manhattan perspective, it could be published any time without making much difference. Rather than run the risk of this delay happening a third or even fourth time over the remainder of that year, and because I believed that jonathanrosenbaum.com may have had a larger readership than Film Comment anyway, I decided to make a last-minute editorial decision of my own and posted it there, originally in April 2013. (Like all my other texts, it subsequently got transferred here half a year later, at jonathanrosenbaum.net.)   — J.R.

Part of the strength of André Delvaux (1926-2002) as a filmmaker is that, like the otherwise very different Samuel Fuller and Jacques Tati, he was already pushing 40 when he directed his first feature — having by then studied music, German philology, and the law, and also taught Germanic languages and literature before he became a pioneer in teaching film at Belgian state schools, where Chantal Akerman and Hitler in Hollywoods Frédéric Sojcher (who has written a short book on Delvaux) were among his pupils, meanwhile playing piano to accompany silent films at the Brussels Cinémathèque.… Read more »

Novel Approach [ULEE'S GOLD]

From the Chicago Reader (June 27, 1997). — J.R.

Ulee’s Gold

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Victor Nunez

With Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Vanessa Zima, Jessica Biel, Christine Dunford, J. Kenneth Campbell, Steven Flynn, Dewey Weber, and Tom Wood.

The character-driven stories in all four of writer-director Victor Nunez’s features to date — Gal Young ‘Un, A Flash of Green, his masterpiece Ruby in Paradise, and now Ulee’s Gold – are defined by their regionalism: Nunez operates exclusively as a Florida independent. Whether he’s adapting a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings short story set in the 20s or a John D. MacDonald novel (his first two films) or writing an original script (the second two), Nunez bases his art on a sense of place so solid that the texture of the settings is part of his subject.

The fact that all his films are relatively slow moving also has something to do with the Florida settings. Former residents of that state have told me that his movies capture not only a sense of the place but its rhythms, and judging from the novels with Florida settings I’ve read in recent years — John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest and the three wonderful Hoke Moseley novels of Charles Willeford (Miami Blues, Sideswipe, and New Hope for the Dead) — this isn’t just Nunez’s take on the region.… Read more »

Ulee’s Gold

From the Chicago Reader (June 16, 1997). — J.R.

UleesGold
On the strength of this film and Ruby in Paradise, Florida independent Victor Nuñez may actually be the best director of actors in American movies right now. See what he does here with someone as unpromising as Peter Fonda, not to mention Jessica Biel, J. Kenneth Campbell, and the wonderful Patricia Richardson. When the beauty of his writing is factored in with the solid, patient realism of his direction — in both his adaptations (Gal Young ‘Un, A Flash of Green) and his more recent originals — he seems to be one of our most adept novelistic filmmakers as well. The only limitation of his fourth feature is a story that’s fairly familiar, both as an account of personal redemption — Fonda as a Vietnam vet, beekeeper, widower, and grandfather trying to hold the remainder of his family together — and as a crime story involving the former cronies of the veteran’s wayward and incarcerated son. Still, this is so stylistically fresh and sensitively nuanced that you aren’t likely to mind much. (JR)
uleesgold-girl

Read more »

THE SAVAGE EYE and SHADOWS

This commissioned essay was for a touring retrospective catalogue, The American New Wave, 1958-1967, published by the Walker Art Center and Media Center/Buffalo in 1982 (and slightly tweaked just now, in June 2010). It’s dated by my erroneous assumption, shared by most critics during this period, that the dialogue of Shadows was improvised, corrected years later by the research of Ray Carney — although I still stand fully behind my opening paragraph. I was also mistaken in my assumption that Charles Mingus was entirely responsible for the film’s score, especially in the second version. (Ross Lipman has written brilliantly and in detail on this subject in an essay that can be accessed here.)

My writing of this article was both interrupted and ultimately informed by the the shock of the suicide of my older brother David. Regarding the details about lapsed Catholicism apropos of The Savage Eye, I can still recall a phone conversation I had at the time with the late Veronica Geng, a former colleague at Soho News (and lapsed Catholic) and a writer and editor at The New Yorker whom I plumbed for information and advice. Perhaps I went a little overboard in my expressions of scorn for the purple prose in The Savage Eye’s commentary; today I find it rather fascinating for its kinship with Beat writing from the same period, for better and for worse. – J.R.Read more »

My Dozen Favorite Non-Region-1 Box Sets

From DVD Beaver (posted June 2008). — J.R.

 

Coming up with my favorite box sets from abroad is a far cry from compiling a list of my favorite films on DVD, foreign or otherwise, even if some of my favorite films are represented here. The problem is, as Mick Jagger puts it, you can’t always get what you want. To start with an extreme example, my favorite Hou Hsiao-hsien film is most likely The Puppetmaster (1993), but my least favorite of all the DVDs of Hou films in my collection happens to be the Winstar edition of that film. It’s so substandard —- not even letterboxed, and packaged so clumsily — that I’m embarrassed to find myself quoted on the back of the box, especially with the quotation mangled into tortured grammar.

I’ve aimed for a certain geographical spread as well as some generic balance: popular comedies, art films, experimental films, and one serial; DVDs from Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Admittedly, roughly half of my selections come from France, and a quarter of them, to my surprise, comes from a single label, Gaumont —- maybe because this blockbuster company seems to specialize in blockbuster box sets.Read more »

Now and Then [on APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX]

From the August 17, 2001 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

Apocalypse Now Redux

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by John Milius and Coppola

With Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G.D. Spradlin, Harrison Ford, Colleen Camp, Cynthia Wood, Christian Marquand, and Aurore Clement.

It’s hard to think of many movies where the great, the not so great, and the simply awful coexist quite as brazenly as they do in Apocalypse Now. This was true in 1979, when the movie clocked in at 150 minutes, and it’s true 22 years later, when the new version, Apocalypse Now Redux, runs a third longer.

If anything, the longer version — not so much a rethinking of the material as an expansion, with a minimum of reshuffling, by the adept Walter Murch, who also worked on the original — is better and worse, emphasizing both the ambitious scope and the fatal flaws of Francis Ford Coppola’s achievement. Among the more substantial additions are a ghostly sequence set on a French plantation (featuring Aurore Clement and the late Christian Marquand) that tries, with mixed results, to poeticize the futility of outsiders, French or American, getting involved in the Vietnam war and a silly and rather inconclusive sequence involving a couple of Playboy Playmates (Cynthia Wood and Colleen Camp) that adds nothing.… Read more »

The Classical Modernist [on Manoel de Oliveira]

From the July-August 2008 Film Comment, with the subhead “Negotiating the singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira on the eve of his 100th birthday “. – J.R.

 

Films, films,
The best resemble
Great books
That are difficult to penetrate
Because of their richness and depth.

The cinema isn’t easy
Because life is complicated
And art indefinable.
Making life indefinable
And art
complicated.
— Manoel de Oliveira, “Cinematographic Poem,” 1986 (translated from the Portuguese)

Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our 19th-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.
— Eric Hobsbawm,
The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991


To insist that all great filmmakers contain multitudes is to risk a counter-response — that the same might equally be said of the not-so-great. Just as much labor can be expended on bad work as on good, and this applies to the labor of viewers and filmmakers alike. Life and art are both complicated, as Manoel de Oliveira points out, but that doesn’t necessarily make them interesting.… Read more »

International Sampler (GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI)

From the Chicago Reader (March 17, 2000). — J.R.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, and Camille Winbush.

Jim Jarmusch’s seventh narrative feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which I’ve seen three times, may be a failure, if only because most of its characters are never developed far enough beyond their mythic profiles to live independently of them. But if it is, it’s such an exciting, prescient, moving, and noble failure that I wouldn’t care to swap it for even three or four modest successes.

Compared with a masterpiece like its controversial predecessor, the 1995 Dead Man, Ghost Dog seems designed to get Jarmusch out of the art-house ghetto, at least in this country, and into something closer to the mainstream. It’s full of familiar elements reconfigured in unfamiliar ways: Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), whose life was once saved by Louie, a New Jersey hoodlum, becomes Louie’s samurai hit man, communicating with him exclusively with homing pigeons. When something goes wrong during a hit, Louie’s gang decides to wipe out Ghost Dog, who retaliates in order to defend himself.… Read more »

Anything for a Laugh [THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!]

From the Chicago Reader (December 9, 1988). — J.R.

THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by David Zucker

Written by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Pat Proft.

With Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, O.J. Simpson, and Nancy Marchand.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I find the latest comedy by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (the ZAZ team) a notch below their previous Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret! (1984). This shouldn’t matter much to anyone looking for an irreverent, anything-goes farce with a fair number of laughs; The Naked Gun is certainly that, and I don’t intend for the following to scare anyone away from it. But I do want to consider what’s been happening to the ZAZ team’s distinctive brand of satire over the past eight years.

All three ZAZ movies use as their point of departure the crystallized form of some bad formula movie. The lead characters wear deadpan expressions through their cliche roles, and the laughs derive largely from non sequiturs in their dialogue and from lunatic gags that surround them as they trudge through their routine plots, impervious to the silliness.

Airplane! stuck to this pattern pretty consistently, lampooning the disaster blockbusters of the 70s like Earthquake, the Airport sequels, and The Towering Inferno.… Read more »

Paranoid Illusions [THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE]

From the Chicago Reader (March 11, 1988). —J.R.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Written by George Axelrod

With Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh, and James Edwards.

The first and only time I’ve seen a good 35-millimeter print of Carl Dreyer’s 1944 masterpiece Day of Wrath was in Europe about a month ago. The film was being rereleased, along with Dreyer’s 1925 Master of the House and his 1955 Ordet, at several small theaters in Paris, and the difference in seeing it in optimal conditions was incalculable. The carnal impact of the film’s sound track, lighting, compositions, camera movements, and performances may be dimly evident in duped 16-millimeter prints and on video, but the overall effect is like that of viewing a great painting through several layers of gauze, or hearing a great symphony through earmuffs. By and large, this prophylactic experience is the only way our film heritage is preserved for most people in the U.S. — which is another way of saying that it isn’t really preserved at all.

Why are major rereleases of old movies in spanking new prints — apart from Disney cartoon features, and the five Hitchcocks that resurfaced a few years back — such a rare occurrence in this country, and so common in France?… Read more »

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

From the Chicago Reader (March 3, 2004). — J.R.

The_Manchurian_Candidate_2004

I don’t get it. As Dave Kehr has noted, the 1962 original was an audacious mix of cold war paranoia and twisted cabaret humor. Any remake that scuttles both had better have something good to replace them with; this offers only a vague retread of anticorporate thrillers from the 70s. The story’s been updated to the first gulf war (Manchurian is now just the name of an evil conglomerate) and deprived of its major shocks (involving formal inventiveness, over-the-top dialogue, and the way the incest is presented). Oddly, it does retain some of the original’s political murkiness — the right-wing villainess (Meryl Streep) resembles Hillary Clinton — but there’s no mythic or comic payoff. If you don’t care much about the first version, or what director Jonathan Demme’s name once meant, the cast does an OK job with Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris’s routine thriller script. But the bite found in the best recent political documentaries is missing. With Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, and Jeffrey Wright. R, 135 min. (JR)… Read more »

Ten Underappreciated John Ford Films

From DVD Beaver (posted December 2007). — J.R.

sheworeayellowribbon1

The first John Ford film I can remember seeing, probably encountered around the time I was in first grade, was archetypal: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Apart from its uncommonly vibrant colors, this had just about everything a Ford movie was supposed to have: cavalry changes, drunken brawls, Monument Valley, and such standbys as John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Ford’s older brother Francis; only Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond were missing.

Ford was one of the very first auteurs I was aware of, along with Cecil B. De Mille, Walt Disney, and Alfred Hitchcock, and what made him especially distinctive was that he was apparently less restricted than the others to a single genre. De Mille made spectaculars, Disney did cartoons, and Hitchcock specialized in thrillers, but a Ford movie could be a western, a war movie, or something else.

 

The ten relatively neglected Ford movies I’ve singled out here include a few that still can’t be found on DVD. I might well have selected some others if I’d seen them more recently (I’m currently looking forward to re-seeing the 1945 They Were Expendable, for instance), but I’d none the less argue that all of these are well worth hunting down.Read more »

How To Live in Air Conditioning

From Sight and Sound (Summer 1985). This is a revised and expanded version of a lecture given at the Rotterdam International Film Festival’s Market in early 1985, the second year I attended the festival. Some of it’s obviously very dated now (hopefully in a way that’s historicallyinstructive) and some of it anticipates a few of the arguments made in my book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See 15 years later. The late Huub Bals, director and presiding spirit of the Rotterdam festival, asked me to give this talk, and, as I recall, it was well attended; if memory serves, the audience members included, among others, Eszter Balint (the female lead in Stranger Than Paradise), Bernardo Bertolucci, Sara Driver, Jim Jarmusch, and Rudy Wurlitzer. –- J.R.

A feeling of having no choice is becoming more and more widespread in American life, and particularly among successful people, who are supposedly free beings. On a concrete plane, the lack of choice is often a depressing reality. In national election years, you are free to choose between Johnson and Goldwater or Johnson and Romney or Reagan, which is the same as choosing between a Chevrolet and a Ford — there is a marginal difference in styling.Read more »